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Improving employee engagement

Engagement Meter

Every day, employees make decisions, take actions and behave in ways that impact our business, other employees, customers and other stakeholders. Those actions and behaviours define our business at a fundamental level and are critical to our long-term performance and our agility.

It’s also fair to say that those actions and behaviours are heavily influenced by the level of engagement those employees have towards the business and where it’s heading.

I’m sure that none of this is new or a surprise to most of us. And yet according to Gallup polls taken over many years, employee engagement levels remain disappointingly low – in a 2021 Gallup poll, just 20% of employees worldwide considered themselves to be truly engaged at work.

So how can we improve employee engagement?

What drives employee engagement?

Often engagement isn’t just about the job itself but about the behaviours, especially those of leaders and managers in positions of influence and power. One thing is also clear, it’s not all about money, in study a few years ago around 89% of bosses believed that employees quit because they want more money. The reality was nearer 12%. With that long held belief being so far away from the mark, it’s easy to see why leaders and managers have not put their focus where it really matters.

I came across an example recently in healthcare, where in one group of professionals 29 out of 30 are leaving the organisation within 3 years of being trained. This level of skills drain is clearly unsustainable, it’s wasteful of resources and creating high levels of stress and burn-out to those staff involved. And yet many of the reasons for leaving were not about the job, which they loved, rather about the culture of blame, disrespect and feeling undervalued. In other words, getting them to stay would be more about removing the reasons they would leave and simply allowing them to do the job they signed up to in the first place. Turning around a culture to that degree is not an easy task of course but it’s far more useful to focus attention there than simply throwing money at salaries and benefits.

The other side of the coin is meaning. In other words, doing something that we feel is important to us and is therefore worth putting our precious energy into. In the scenario mentioned above meaning wasn’t the core issue, most people involved knew why they had chosen that vocation, it was the other things getting in the way that were the problem and causing the disengagement. In other case though, feeling that the work itself is unimportant or of little value is a key reason for disengagement. Helping our employees to find meaning at work is increasingly becoming a hot topic for that reason and especially following the pandemic, where many of us have taken some time to reflect on what we want from our life.

In a post pandemic era, most organisations are also battling with the flexibility topic. Do we allow people to work completely remotely, or should we mandate that they are in the office for some or all of the time? What seems to be emerging here is that autonomy is actually the real issue, we want to feel trusted and empowered to make the right decision for the business and for ourselves. Something we also see in change situation is that we like to feel masters of our own destiny, something that change can often be seen to threaten.

Who is responsible for employee engagement?

Employee engagement has an impact at all levels of a business but where does accountability really sit? Clearly, it’s leadership concern first and foremost so ultimately accountability must sit there. The statistics show though that for various reasons we are taking our eye off the ball.

Most businesses would aspire to a culture of strong engagement and yet there appears to be a disconnect between the aspiration and the reality. It’s clear though that fostering engagement-centric workplace culture will not happen without focus and effort. And that focus and effort needs to be happening everywhere, so that means we all have an element of responsibility, both to the culture of the business and to our own level of engagement.

All too often responsibility for engagement is delegated to the HR or People function. They certainly have a role in bringing attention to the issue and it makes sense for them to lead on the measurement, insights and suggesting the areas of focus, the responsibility for taking action to increase engagement must be far broader though if it’s going to deliver real change.

About staff surveys

In a nutshell, if we don’t measure it, we can’t be sure we’re improving it. Staff surveys are a great example of that. They are in vogue at the moment and in general that’s a good thing but there are a few notes of caution:

  • We must show that we are listening to what’s been said and acting on it. Nothing demotivates more than asking our opinion then appearing to ignore it.
  • We should encourage honest feedback, rather than seeking to paint a rosy picture. We need to show that we are prepared to face into whatever is there.
  • Make it quick and easy to do. We’re all busy and don’t need another complicated item on our to-do list.

Key to success is being able to encourage a sense of honesty right across the business about what’s helping people to feel engaged and what’s undermining engagement, then creating an open conversation around the topic.

What are the benefits of engaged employees?

Put simply, highly engaged staff are like rocket fuel for any business. It’s hard to overstate the importance of engagement to pretty much every aspect of an organisation. When most employees are highly engaged there is a sense of energy and commitment that is highly visible, it’s what got the most successful organisations on the planet to where they are now.

Some of the more tangible and visible benefits include:

Improved team performance

Highly engaged teams that trust each other, value their differences and are empowered to take decisions consistently deliver better outcomes and with greater agility.

Furthermore, employee morale can be contagious (in both directions). Team members are more likely to feel engaged in their own role when surrounded by focused and motivated peers who care about what they do. Individual engagement leads to team engagement, while personal achievement boosts team achievement and vice versa.

Increased productivity

Employees that are highly engaged are more productive and generate higher-quality work because they are personally invested in their work and care about their results. They are committed to the team’s and company’s objectives, and they are held accountable for their individual contributions. This means that your team will be more productive.

Lower staff turnover

Employees that are engaged, fulfilled, and devoted to their goals are more likely to stay longer. Sadly, as we’ve seen from the example I discussed above, the opposite is also true. High levels of staff turnover can be incredibly disruptive and costly to any organisation. Team cohesion and trust takes time to build and on the flip side there is the loss of knowledge, the hiring and training along with the associated risks and costs.

Lower staff absence levels

Employees that are engaged show up, and they show up fully. Conversely, disengaged employees are more likely to miss days and are less likely to be fully present when they do show up. It goes without saying that reduced staff absence is good for business and ideally not just showing up physically but also excited, and ready to get stuck into doing something useful.

A happier and less stressed workforce

Stress at work is becoming an increasingly hot topic and with a significant health impact. Aside from the obvious performance hit there is a moral imperative for all of us to do what we can to help reduce workplace stress. When we feel supported, safe and engaged in our work it can give us energy, even in some cases where other aspects of our life are challenging us.

How can we increase employee engagement?

Engagement comes from within each of us as we seek a life of meaning, driven by our own values and beliefs, all unique to us individually. Some of us will be happy to do something relatively mundane during the workday and use our free time to pursue our interests, for others work is the vehicle by which we would aim to do that.

The key point here though is that we choose, it can’t be chosen for us. So, we can’t really increase engagement, what we can do though is create the conditions that encourage it. That’s where strong employee insights are essential, so we know what to focus on.

Some areas of focus that are universally useful and therefore likely to be required as a given include:

  • Focusing on developing a culture where leaders and managers really care about the physical and mental wellbeing of their staff
  • Regular, clear and honest communication about the aims of the business and the challenges to be faced
  • Encouraging staff to develop their own personal growth journey and sense of purpose
  • Helping people to feel safe, especially when the business is facing challenging times, nothing dis-engages us more than feeling that we’re under threat

What specific steps can organisations take to improve employee engagement?

The rest of this article explores in more detail some of the areas that are well worth some focus in most organisations, of course notwithstanding any specific insights gained through employee surveys. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list but at least somewhere to start.

Model your business’ core values

Employees are more engaged when they have a goal to work toward and a reason to be inspired. Your organisation’s values, vision and mission statement form the cornerstone of its culture, which significantly impacts employee engagement. These are far more likely to be lived across the organisation when they are stated clearly and modelled by those in a position of power or significant influence.

Encourage a culture of workplace efficiency

Most of us have too little time to get all the things done that we’d like so let’s not waste what we have. A global survey quoted in Financial Director Magazine found that “on average, 26% of an employee’s day will be wasted on avoidable administrative chores”. Whilst inefficiency is not something that can necessarily be solved overnight, encouraging a culture where it’s least acknowledged as high priority will help to avoid irritation and dis-engagement.

Offer flexibility

Flexible and remote working are now almost a given for many types of work. Closely related is allowing people to feel a sense of autonomy in how they deliver what’s needed. This level of adaptability satisfies employees’ desire for a work-life balance. To demonstrate that we value our team members personally, we could try allowing them to change their work hours to meet after-school pick-up arrangements, a fitness class they enjoy, or personal projects. Employees will be more engaged if they are treated with respect and consideration.

Over communicate honestly, regularly and clearly

Communication is critical to engagement and therefore the lifeblood of any successful organisation. It’s not just what we say that matters but how we say it and what we’re not saying.

We’re very good at picking up on body language and reading between the lines so if there is anything that can’t be discussed (due to legal reasons for example) it’s so important to tell people that this is the case and let them know when we will be able to tell them.

As the saying goes, nature abhors a vacuum, and this is especially true with communication. We’ll generally fill in any gaps ourselves and create our own story, often one that’s far worse that the real one. So, it’s well worth keeping that in mind when deciding to leave something unsaid.

A transparent workplace develops trust, which in turn fosters a sense of belonging and stability. It also provides employees with the required competencies to grasp how their own function relates to the rest of the team and stakeholders.

Foster innovation and risk-taking

Consider ways to encourage innovation and new ideas. For example, encouraging employees’ interests and passion projects have been shown to lead to inventive and financially beneficial solutions that benefit the business.

We can also promoting a culture that encourages experimentation, welcomes failure as part of learning and reflects honestly on what could be improved or at least tried.

Recognise achievements

It is essential to recognise good behaviours and resulting achievements and actively discourage behaviours that mis-aligned with the business values. Remember also that we each like to be recognised in different ways, some more publicly and others in private so we need to adapt accordingly.

Peer recognition is also especially powerful and has the added benefit of building team cohesion and embedding a positive team culture if done well.

Encourage interaction outside work

Encouraging time spent together outside of the workplace and in unrelated activities can also be an effective way solidify and add a new dimension to working relationships within the team. Common interest groups can strengthen friendships across departmental lines, building relationships that might otherwise not have existed.

Look at professional development

As leaders, part of our job is to help people grow and develop, both as individuals and professionally. This doesn’t just mean training for the specific job; it extends to every aspect of life because the more an individual develops themselves the more value they can contribute, so everyone wins.

Feeling invested in also builds loyalty and engagement in what the business is doing. The concern we often hear is that if we invest in their training they will leave for a better job, which in our opinion is missing the point completely. Positive sentiment and loyalty towards our business can only ever be a good thing, regardless of where it exists.

Encourage a real sense of purpose

Whilst the nature of the role, salary and working conditions are important, there is nothing more motivating than knowing what we are doing has meaning and that we’re doing something we believe is worthwhile, something worth getting up for each day.

Whilst we can’t force those around us to find their own sense of purpose, we can encourage them to do so. We can create the conditions that make it more likely, and we can lead by example. We can also be very clear on the organisation’s own purpose and why we think it matters to the world. We can also help those around us to see that what they do contributes to the overall purpose. We can also encourage them to understand that the way they do their job also matters to their co-workers, the organisation, and the world around them.

Make use of feedback

We all like to feel heard and that helps to improve engagement. The simple act of asking then really listening to what’s been said helps us all to feel valued. Feedback can take many forms, from the formal (e.g., surveys) to the simple coffee and a chat. And the chances are that we’ll learn something valuable as a result, simply because we’re seeing a new perspective, one that we may well have missed.

Asking for opinions and feedback is only part of it though. We also need to demonstrate that we are prepared to take the comments on board and do something with them. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll act on everything, but we should at least be thoughtful in our response and explain what we are going to do and why.

We’ll all feel demotivated if we take the time to give our thoughts only for us to feel it’s been ignored.

Empower your employees

In times of crisis or when team members are unable to meet demanding deadlines, it’s all too easy to resort to micromanagement. Unfortunately, this very quickly undermines engagement and makes it even harder to delegate effectively later. We’ve seen many situations where micromanagement has become the norm, and then a constant spiral of feeling that staff members aren’t up to the job while also not allowing them to grow. Put simply not many of us would enjoy constant correction and negative feedback; it drains energy and innovation.

Empowering staff means allowing them to take an element of risk and with it some responsibility and even the chance of failure. Supporting that and nurturing them through it helps them to learn and grow which in turn helps them to become a highly valuable and motivated member of the team.

Make employee wellness a priority

Wellness is an essential aspect of employee engagement and so easy to overlook in the focus on the immediate priorities. If our basic needs are not being met (physical, social, emotional, psychological etc) then it becomes harder for us to perform at our best. That scenario isn’t good for the employee or the business so it’s well worth our attention and investment.

There are plenty of excellent resources on Employee Wellness so we’re not going to focus too much on them here but a few to consider as a priority would include:

Helping to ensuring our employees feel psychologically secure, able to speak up and be honest about their feelings without fear of retribution

Encouraging flexible working and a high level of autonomy where possible, encouraging a good balance of work and personal interests

Being prepared to talk openly about balancing the needs of the job with staying physically and mentally healthy and helping to facilitate and encourage it where possible

Encouraging regular feedback on how our employees are really feeling, i.e., not just want we want to hear.

Practice careful onboarding

It goes without saying that how we onboard is crucial role to the way new employees engage with our organisation. This means everything from the definition of the role, how we choose candidates, how we establish their cultural fit and suitability, how we embed them and how we mentor them onwards as they progress.

The better we know ourselves and what our organisation stands for, the values we hold and what we’re striving for, the easier it becomes to find the right people to take that journey with us.

Bringing it all together

The more engaged we are the less managing we need, the more likely we are to turn up, the more likely we are to be useful when we do. We’ll take the initiative more often, we’ll work harder to make things happen, we’re more likely to go the extra mile when needed. In short, we’ll put more of ourselves in.

It’s hard to imagine why any business wouldn’t want most of their employees to feel really engaged and yet the figures quoted above suggest that there is a way to go. In our experience this isn’t intentional as most people would want the things we’ve discussed above, both for themselves and those around them.

The gap seems to be one of inattention, being distracted by the business priorities and the to-do list, forgetting that engagement is the fuel to power us forward. So anything we can do bring our attention back to those things we can do to encourage increased engagement can only be good for business.